For as long as I can remember graffiti has had a presence in Melbourne. I can still recall the graffiti slogans I saw as a child. They flashed before my eyes as I travelled on Melbourne’s trains. The bold messages stood out like newspaper headlines. The graffiti-covered walls were a place for outcast authors to leave their raw uncensored comments. But their slogans soon made way for a more colourful form of expression.
In the 1980s a new strain of graffiti spread like a rash across Melbourne’s suburbs. This modern graffiti has its origins in 1960s New York. It was initially used by gangs to mark their territory. But others saw it as a potential art form and began to develop it into their own unique style.
This new genre of street art landed in Melbourne when hip-hop culture, which the graffiti of the time was embedded in, exploded worldwide. The tools of the trade were spray cans of paint that artists used to create bold simple designs. These early pieces often mimicked the New York style depicting large letters in vivid colours.
Transformed by colour
Parts of Melbourne were suddenly transformed into a kaleidoscope of colour. But the sudden change in visual landscape didn’t please everyone. Many residents and business owners had to bear the cost and inconvenience of removing graffiti from their property. Graffiti soon became synonymous with anti-social behaviour and gang-related crime.
Tough new laws were brought in that saw some graffiti artists jailed. But it wasn’t enough to stop the graffiti artists. For them perhaps the notoriety of being a graffiti artist was more important. They were willing to risk harsh penalties because they felt compelled to put their own mark on the urban landscape.
I think being a graffiti writer artist gives people who have no status in the community an identity. Graffiti is their way of saying “I’m here”. Graffiti artists can use graffiti to bypass traditional forms of publication that often edit, filter and censure what people want to say.
Graffiti or street art leads a double existence. To many it’s simply vandalism and Victoria has some of the toughest anti-graffiti laws in the world. Local councils spend millions of dollars each year trying to eradicate illegal graffiti.
However research by the City of Melbourne shows people think favourably of well-drawn stylish designs when there’re in appropriate locations, though they tend to revile the patchwork of ugly scribbling covering the city known as tagging.
The City of Melbourne has drafted a graffiti management plan. It allows artists to create well-drawn colourful pieces on property with the owner’s permission. Property owners must also gain approval if they want graffiti on their premises declared legal.
Those behind the plan believe it can enhance Melbourne’s cosmopolitan image and draw tourists to the city.
Graffiti and tourism
Today Melbourne is world renowned for its graffiti. It has become a favourite destination for tourists who love our city laneways with their pastiche of psychedelic murals and stencil art. Tourists can wander Melbourne’s backstreets searching for graffiti treasure. The City of Melbourne has declared some areas of the city to be legal graffiti zones and tourist operators conduct paid tours of the best sites.
Melbourne’s street art scene has become interwoven with its café culture. The city’s graffiti-covered lanes and their surrounds have become home to a network of bars, shops, restaurants and cafes. On any day they bustle with tourists and locals soaking up the festive atmosphere created by the vivid imagery of Melbourne’s street art.
Some of the laneways used by street artists as galleries are so highly regarded people think they have cultural significance. Hosier Lane and the adjacent Rutledge Lane opposite Federation Square are considered Melbourne’s finest. Graffiti lovers also highly rate ACDC Lane and Duckboard Place situated off Flinders Lane. My favourite is Union Lane, which runs off Bourke Street mall, and features gaudy murals with weird alien cartoon characters.
There are people who think graffiti enriches Melbourne’s cultural diversity and adds to its mystique. Others feel it’s a stain on our city streets that needs to be erased. Ridding Melbourne of graffiti may make the streets look cleaner. But we might also rob the city of its personality, and lose a form of expression that can surprise, amuse and sometimes even inspire us.